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Corporal Punishment: A Wrong Not a Right

This is the sixth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.

By Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, JD (Professor of Law, Emory University)

No person has a “right” to strike another, no matter how close the relationship. I remember fifty years ago seeing a mother chase her child with a stick, shouting “I brought you into this world and I can put you in the cemetery!”  Luckily, the child was faster than his mother.  But the idea of a “right” to hit a child is no laughing matter.  It belongs in the dustbin of history along with a husband’s right to “discipline” his wife provided the stick he used was no thicker than his thumb.

Sometimes even good and loving parents can lose patience and resort to a spanking. That doesn’t make them criminals, but it does not make spanking into a right.  As a purely pragmatic matter, spanking is wrong.  Studies have shown that spanking and other harsh methods make children’s behavior worse not better.  But parents in our legal system are given a lot of leeway in how they raise their children.  In most states, corporal punishment only crosses the line into child abuse if it poses a serious risk of physical or psychological harm.

So how can I say that there is no “right” to spank your child?

There is a huge difference between what parents may do without becoming criminals and what they have a “right” to do. Under our constitutional system, a right is a fundamental freedom that deserves special constitutional protection.

Parental autonomy – including the freedom to make individual decisions about child rearing–has long been recognized as essential to American democracy. Individual choice in child bearing and child rearing are considered are fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.

Our family laws presume that parents have their children’s best interests at heart and are in the best position to understand their children’s needs. For these reasons, many aspects of child rearing are constitutionally protected, including parental rights to make decisions about education, medical care and religious upbringing.

But the Supreme Court has never held that parents have an unbridled constitutional right to discipline their child as they see fit. Instead, it has consistently held that parental freedoms end where harm to the child begins (see Prince v. Massachusetts). Those who disagree have tried and repeatedly failed to amend the constitution to add language that would recognize an affirmative right of parents to use corporal punishment.  The majority of parents and teachers, doctors and mental health experts, judges and advocates for abused and neglected children, and experts in constitutional law have defeated all efforts to enshrine spanking as a constitutional right. Corporal punishment too often escalates and ends tragically in child abuse.

There was a time when the slogan “spare the rod and spoil the child” was accepted as common wisdom. But the evidence is mounting that harsh discipline is actually detrimental to children and damaging to society.  Nations around the world now recognize that corporal punishment violates the rights of the child, offends children’s dignity and harms their development. No matter how well intentioned, spanking is a wrong and not a “right”.


Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is among the nation’s foremost experts on children’s rights. She joined the Emory Law faculty in 2009 as the L. Q. C. Lamar Chair in Law. Her scholarship and teaching focus on child law, child welfare, comparative and international family law, adoption, and constitutional law. Read her full faculty profile here.


For more on the outcomes of spanking for children, read this study analyzing 50 years of research addressing this topic.

Image source: Flickr user Jessica Lucia via Creative Commons

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